The Lost Treasure
One of the great joys of growing up in Coonoor, a small hill town in the Nilgiris, was the public libraries.
Coonoor had two, one was the more elite Coonoor Library and the other was the municipal library. My grandfather was a member of the Coonoor Library and I would visit it along with him and my mother, another voracious reader. The library was located on the road which leads from Coonoor Club to Sims Park. It was a lovely, gracious building with a verandah which ran all the way around it. To add to the beauty of the building was a large weeping willow on one side.
In 1916, J.S.C Eagan writes in The Nilgiri Guide and Directory,” The first library in Coonoor was started as early as the year 1864, and was placed in the premises, now occupied by the Post Office. It was later shifted, for a short time, to the Assembly Rooms. The present fine building was constructed in 1903 from designs by Major E. R. B. Stokes- Roberts, R.E.
The upper storey, which is on the road level, consists of a large, well- lighted reading-room, beautifully furnished, and having on its tables the majority of the standard magazines and illustrated periodicals, and also a number of daily papers. The reading-room is surrounded by a wide verandah, which commands a sweeping view and which forms a very pleasant lounge. Below are found the large circulating department and silent rooms”.
Conditions of Membership
All persons residing in Coonoor, Wellington or the neighbourhood are eligible, subject to approval of the Committee.
Entrance fee of Rs. 10, and monthly subscription of (Single), Rs. 3; Family, Rs. 4. Book members pay a monthly subscription of Rs. 2, (no entrance fee) but they are not permitted the use of the Reading Room.
I was allowed into the reading room and the instructions were very clear. No talking, no thumping on the stairs and no running inside the library. Only after I had agreed to these rules, was I permitted to enter. One had to tread very carefully making sure that one’s shoes didn’t squeak. Once inside the library, one was to acknowledge other members with just a nod and smile, which would be reciprocated. The chair at the octagonal reading table had to be pulled out ever so gently. Except for the Illustrated Weekly of India, the other magazines were from ole blighty and were three months old, at least. But we did get a taste of the Punch, the Illustrated London News, Woman and Home and Women’s Weekly.
Before I tell you about the sad fate of this wonderful institution, I must mention the inimitable municipal library. This library was located in basement of the Jograj Building and my mother was a member here. The reading room which had some Tamil newspapers and magazines was always crowded and fuggy. Some of the books were under lock and key. If you wanted to open the locked ones, you had to ask the librarian for the keys, which had to be duly returned after use. The library also stocked the latest Malayalam books and large collection of children’s books which included the Chalet School series.
Sadly there is no Coonoor Library, now. The fate of the municipal library is also unknown. After my grandfather’s death, I continued to use the library. Till one day, I was told by the librarian that I could not come there. My father tried to become a member, but it was too late. They were not admitting new members. At that time, nobody paid much heed to it. Library memberships were not very important. Finally, we heard that the Library building with all its effects was sold.
Mr. K.V.Krishnan, a well known Ooty lawyer writes about the Coonoor Library in the magazine commemorating 150 years of the Nilgiri Library in Ooty. ”As all this was going well for our (Nilgiri) Library, our counterpart in Coonoor called the Coonoor Library to whom we were lending 30 books a month fell a victim to a dubious decision. It was closed and sold to St Antony’s School. The mode of operation adopted was to reduce the membership and when it came to less than ten a resolution was passed to sell and the entire members signed the deed. Till date no one knows what happened to the sale proceeds. It is a prime property next to the Coonoor Club. Today it is worth several crores.”
Krishnan writes “Though the news shocked the reading and well meaning public of the Nilgiris it gave ideas to a section of Ooty public. Suddenly many unknown people became members. There was a pattern to this; all of them came in the same car of a local company. We smelled a rat. Then came the election. The same car brought the nomination papers for 11 committee members. Coup was imminent. All the existing Committee members also put up their nomination. No holds barred contest was held. The existing committee won hands down. The Coonoor Library-like fate was averted. The new mushroom members left one by one by default.”
The Nilgiri Library continues flourish. It is indeed a treasure trove of books and a wonderful Nilgiri heritage. This library was started in 1858 and is housed in an elegant building on Commissioner’s Road. I was a member briefly and believe me; you really need strong recommendation to become one. I guess after the narrow shave they had with land mafia, the committee has to be careful who they admit as members.
In the Guide to the Nilgiris, published by Higginbotham & Co, it says, “It (the Nilgiri Library) is located in a pretty little building near St Stephen’s Church, and it is often used as a convenient rendezvous; for everyone visits the library at least once a day to pick up the news of the world from the papers, local news and gossip at first hand.
This is one library, all books lovers must visit. I empathize with Roger Zeazny who said, “I like libraries. It makes me feel comfortable and secure to have walls of words, beautiful and wise, all around. I always feel better when I can see that there is something to hold back the shadows.